You Are Not Your Circumstances
How to rise above what holds you down.
Posted May 23, 2017
It’s not uncommon for people to view what has happened to them in life as part of their very being. Lost your job, and now you are a loser? Lashed out at a friend or family member in anger, and now you are a jerk? Had too much to drink or eat, and now you are a lush or lack willpower? Look at the different circumstances you have been in and consider the self-talk you use to connect who you are with what has happened. It isn’t always negative, either; let’s say you won an event and you are intelligent for doing so, or that you got the opportunity to pursue a dream vacation or job and you are smart as a result. In almost all cases, people take the situation—what has actually happened—and associate who they are and how they describe themselves with that situation.
This is why parental experts talk about the danger in telling a child who has done well on a test “you are a smart boy/girl” or one who has behaved well in the grocery store for an hour-long shopping spree “you are a good girl/boy." The behavior or incident does not define the person. Yes, the child may have behaved well during that shopping trip, but the trip alone does not define the child as “good." Nor does having a meltdown during that same shopping trip define the child as “bad." The child is inside the situation, not defined by it.
The problem with defining yourself by what happens to you is that life is more random than we’d like to think. Yes, sometimes the person who studies hard or networks well or works all hours succeeds in a way that someone who isn’t putting in the effort does not. However, as much as you may not like to admit it, there are also people who don’t put in a lot of effort and are naturally talented in a certain way, connected to the right people, or simply in the right place at the right time. Controlling what happens to you is not as easy as it may sound.
Does this mean you don’t work hard? You don’t take care walking through dark alleys in the middle of the night, and you don’t do your best whenever possible? Of course not! You are wired with smarts and positive traits, and each and every person should use them to their best advantage.
What it does mean is that in order to build your personal confidence and move through life in an unshakeable manner, no matter what the outward circumstances may be, you have to learn to start separating who you are and how you think about yourself from what happens to you, good or bad. People who are super smart and talented, and even well networked and liked, get laid off. Someone who is devoted to health and wellness and takes good care of their physical body gets sick. A person who is faithful and loving toward their spouse can be cheated upon. Being a “good” person doesn’t mean that only good things will happen to you.
It’s important to develop an air of objectivity and to learn to step back from what happens and observe it as an outsider. Think about a good friend of yours who learns they are getting laid off from a job they have been committed to for years. You likely wouldn’t say, as a first response, “Wow! What stupid thing did you do to be chosen for the layoff?” Instead, you’d defend your friend: “Man, I can’t believe you got caught up in this. You were one of their best, most dedicated employees for years. I’m sorry this happened to you.”
When it isn’t you, you can remain detached and positive but when the same event happens to you, you turn inward to figure out where you messed up and to berate yourself overstaying too long at the job, not seeing the writing on the wall, speaking out when you shouldn’t have at that meeting, not working long enough or working too long, etc. In fact, the ways in which you beat up on yourself are probably endless.
It’s time to start treating yourself like you’d treat a good friend and separating who you are from what happens to you. In order to do this, you have to first admit to your own humanity. People make mistakes. People have 20/20 vision when they’re looking back on choices they have made. Most people make the best decisions in the moment with the information they have, the tools they have to work with, and the state of mind they are in.
So no matter what’s happened to you, it’s time to build confidence back and realize you are not your circumstances. Stand outside the fire and look in. Consider some of the following steps:
- Refrain from language that either denigrates or inflates who you are as a person, in reaction to your circumstances. Do this by being objective about what happened: “I was laid off,” “I won the award,” “I was late to the party,” “I lost my temper.” Record what happened, and refrain from adding commentary – “…because I am a jerk”… “because I am the smartest person ever.” The more you can be objective and separate yourself from what happens, the more perspective you will be able to develop over time.
- Remember that everyone wins some and everyone loses some. Humans have selective focus and often will select the times they have won and say “I’m a winner” or the times they’ve lost and say the contrary. Having confidence, taking risks and believing in one’s self are great traits and get many people through the toughest of times, but painting your life with only one brush or another can be detrimental when things go against your belief system. Be confident, but be realistic and make sure you are taking the right steps to set yourself up for true success, instead of just believing you always come out on top no matter what.
- Practice normalizing with a buddy. Having a friend join you on this journey can be helpful. Agree together you won’t use all-encompassing terms such as “good girl” or “bad guy." Look at what you do well in any given situation, and what you might want to correct. Learning to give feedback to another person can help you with your own feedback. When you have a situation to consider, talk about what you did that you liked, and where you think you could improve. Consider what that improvement might be. What exactly could you do differently? What do you want to continue doing and reinforce? If you are new to this, having someone work with you on it can be very helpful.
- Be careful of your self-talk. It’s so common for people to use a circumstance as a springboard to that laundry list of all the things they love or hate about themselves. Catch yourself when you devolve into the litany of how terrible (or how great) you are, and how you need to change yourself or stay exactly the same. Telling yourself you are all-powerful and can dictate the course of your life, for better or for worse, leaves you with too much power to make the wrong choice. Take the steps you need to take and be smart about them, but refrain from spending so much energy in your head telling yourself about yourself. The story isn’t always true, and you may find you actually limit your opportunities by doing this.